For those of us interested in authoring a high fantasy novel, the task can seem rather daunting. There’s an entire world you have to build with its own rules you have to flesh out. While your hero is off slaying dragons or fighting armies, the world still carries on. Make the rules too different from our own world and you can quickly find yourself drowning in the complexity of what should be the basis of your story. To simplify things, here’s ten basic details to consider when building your high fantasy world.
Those mountains had to come from somewhere. If it hardly ever rains, why are there thick forests everywhere? Unless there’s some magical reasoning for this, like a battle between giants carving massive canyons in a place with no natural way to make them, you’re better off following our world’s natural laws. Also, if you’re having your character travel a lot, the speed at which they do is going to depend a lot on the geography, especially if there are no roads.
Where’s your middle class? How do you grow food? Why does a peasant in the middle of nowhere have an expensive and/or rare spyglass? It’s tempting to think of people in fantasy as either nobility or peasantry, but in order to have a functioning realm it’s necessary to have craftsmen and merchants fueling trade so your hero can actually get their sturdy leather boots.
3. Add women
Since most high fantasy is set to parallel our own history, I promise you, women weren’t as unempowered as so many writers seem to think we were. This advice is particularly for you male writers, but it can also apply to female writers as well. Since women are half your audience, sidelining us with the argument of ‘men have the power’ probably won’t work the way you want it to. In our world’s history, women have been rulers, servants, conquerors, martyrs, religious leaders, artists, and more, and our world has had some pretty effed up power imbalances between genders.
Even if your character is staunchly agnostic, not everyone in the entire world is. In fact, it’s highly improbable that not a single person believes in some kind of higher power. A simple way to address this could be to mention your hero passing a temple in the city, or a few lines of dialogue of them overhearing a preacher speak to a crowd. It doesn’t have to be super in detail, but having religion present adds another realistic depth to your fantasy world.
5. Why is everyone white?
So we have orcs, elves, dwarves, and any number of magical creatures or races, and not a single one of them is a person of color? Not only can that be alienating, but it’s also highly improbable. You don’t have to address race as a social justice issue, as I’m sure your novel is complex enough. It’s good to keep in mind, though, and helps vary your characters, make your world more believable, and provide representation in a genre that has a history of whitewashing.
If you’re having trouble writing characters of color, there are many blogs and such offering tips and can be found with a quick Google search.
6. Why is everyone straight/cis?
Again, with all the fantastical diversity within your world and there’s not a single LGBT person in the bunch? As much as fantasy is meant to reject or go outside of real life, your audience still consists of real-life people who expect to be able to relate to your novel due to some aspect of relatability to real life.
Just like with writing characters of color, you don’t have to make a social justice issue about it, and there are many online resources to help you properly portray LGBT people.
With seven different countries existing across thousands of miles, there’s very little chance that they all speak the same native language. Different races are likely to have their own forms of language as well. Even dialects can make language unintelligible to people who speak different dialects of the same language. Now, this is not to say that you have to go full Tolkien and make up a whole language, but if you mention there being translators or a common language it can really help flesh out your world.
Having your world be at war for generations yet writing many older adult or elderly characters doesn’t reflect the events going on very well. People die in war, and it has a profound effect on everyone, even if they’re not actually fighting. For example, if thousands die every day, where are your orphan camps? Your cripples? Your child soldiers? This is horrible stuff, but realistic for a war-torn society and something you should consider when writing.
Not everyone has the same carbon copy magical sword. Not everyone can afford a sword or is trained to use one. Diversifying the weapons used by your characters can increase their chance of success or force them to face mortifying failure due to different fighting styles. For example, if your main character wields a longsword, they’re probably going to have an advantage over someone with a rapier. However, they’re vulnerable to archers and weapons with longer range, such as a polearm or a glaive. Definitely good to consider if you want to challenge your hero.
Also, weapons require maintenance. If your sword wielder doesn’t once sharpen their sword or your archer oil their bowstring, it's one more degree of separation from practicality that can turn off your readers.
I know they’re boring and difficult to understand. If your hero spends the whole book running around in the woods totally isolated, great! You don’t have to worry about politics. But more often than not this isn’t the case. The King has more to worry about than attending balls or smiting enemies. He has to worry about nobility creating alliances against him, about forming his own alliances to thwart those who would take his power. Even minor nobles scheme and plot for more power.
There’s a lot that goes into worldbuilding. A lot more than is on this list. But if you’re looking for a starting point, this is a pretty decent place to start. Good luck, and I can’t wait to read your novels!